Behind Billie Eilish: Meet the managers guiding the artist’s global success

MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Danny Rukasin and Brandon Goodman, co-managers of one of the world’s hottest new artists, Billie Eilish. The World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.

Billie Eilish is a cultural phenomenon. The singer and her songwriter brother, Finneas O’Connell, have created a debut body of work that transcends genres, reflecting the vast multi-artist listening habits of the music streaming generation – while at the same time tearing apart the notion of the album’s death in the age of the playlist. Oh, and she owned Coachella for fun, too.

Debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was largely recorded in a bedroom studio in Eilish’s childhood LA home. On Apple Music, on day one of its release (Friday March 29) via Darkroom/Interscope, more than 81% of the LP’s duration was played through by its listeners, a stat not to be taken lightly, considering a recent study that suggested only 16% of UK adults listen to an LP from start to finish.

A week before that, the album had already crushed the all-time global ‘pre-add’ record (800,000) on Apple Music, before it topped the Billboard 200 Album chart with 307,000 equivalent sales in its first week, with 14 simultaneous entries in the Hot 100 – the most for a female artist ever.

When We Fall Asleep…’s cultural impact has also spread across borders, hitting No.1 in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium.

LA-based Danny Rukasin (pictured, left) co-manages Billie Eilish alongside Brandon Goodman (pictured, right).

Rukasin initially became friends with Finneas after the songwriter sent him an email about a garage pop band he was in – asking Rukasin to connect him with a producer.

Finneas had, obviously enough, also been writing songs with his sister Billie Eilish, including debut track Ocean Eyes, which he sent to Rukasin in 2016.

“Ocean Eyes drove all of us to take notice,” remembers Rukasin. “The next day I was with [Finneas] and his family and with Billie, meeting everybody and talking about what they wanted to do. The song had already crossed into viral territory overnight.”

Ocean Eyes has since racked up over 100 million views on YouTube.

Next single Six Feet Under built on the hype, before Bellyache was released by Darkroom/Interscope in March 2017.

Working with the likes of John Janick at Interscope, Justin Lubliner at Darkoom and live agencies Paradigm (US) and Coda (UK), and with Eilish approving every decision, what followed was a highly calculated, single-by-single release strategy with accompanying merch drops, visuals and videos, and a precision touring and radio plan.

Indeed, industry watchers suggest Eilish’s approach to US radio – where SiriusXM‘s Hits 1 recently added an unprecedented trio of her singles simultaneously –  has torn up the industry rulebook, and may have single-handedly redefined what constitutes an airplay ‘hit’.

Here, Goodman and Rukasin take us behind the scenes of how Eilish’s team built a truly global alt-pop superstar…

First thing first: How did you start working with Billie Eilish?

Danny Rukasin: Billie writes everything with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Years ago he reached out to me about working with a producer client of mine. He sent me a very funny, sort of cavalier e-mail. It caught my attention as it said ‘Eric Motherfucking Palmquist’, which was hard to ignore! 

I listened to the music that he was writing and producing and I thought it exceptional [especially] at his age, at 17, or 16. I connected him with my client and they ended up working together on four songs.

“We discussed whether or not this was something Billie was really interested in doing or just a hobby, and we got to know and understand [her].”

Over time, Finneas and I became friends, and I guided him a little bit with what he was doing with his band – a local kind of garage-pop band. And then when he kicked off what he was doing with his sister, the music he was making perked up my ears.

Ocean Eyes drove all of us to take notice. The next day I was with [Finneas] and his family with Billie, meeting everybody, talking about what they wanted to do. The song had already crossed into viral territory overnight.

We discussed whether or not this was something Billie was really interested in doing or just a hobby, and we got to know and understand Billie. It was still early stages, but she had a vision of how she wanted what she was doing to be put out in the world.

What are your thoughts on the notion of an album in the streaming age?

BG: Our entire team are aware of the importance of timing when releasing new music and the importance of additional content to support those releases. [In Billie’s case], we were aware that the timing had to be right for an album and the demand had to be there for fans to consume an entire album.

It was really important for Billie and Finn that, when they did create an album, it was a cohesive body of work and not just a bunch of great songs packaged together. The album was created with the intent to be consumed as a whole, and I think that may have become an after-thought for some artists in this single-focused streaming era.

“Billie was really driving all of the visual concepts herself, [so] there was a natural thematic through-line that we felt fans would really understand.”

DR: That’s always been Brandon and my approach to artist development: releasing an artist’s music where we’re always thinking about how the next piece of music is going to be consumed, and how we get to, not necessarily a final destination, but a larger moment with an album.

The visuals and everything they were crafting, because it was sort of insular between Billie and Finn, and Billie was really driving all of the visual concepts herself, there was a natural thematic through-line that we felt fans would really understand. They could see [each] new release and understand it was all part of one thing, a cohesive vision.

You signed with Interscope in 2017. How has it worked with a major label in the picture?

DR: With any label deal, there’s always a negotiation period, but this wasn’t a very difficult one. It obviously takes time because we want to make sure Billie is taken care of, [but]  Interscope and Darkroom have been amazing partners from the start, and all the way through. The team that we have built around Billie is one of the best we’ve ever worked with – a family. We basically see and talk to each other more than we do anyone else in our lives. 

BG: Danny and I both feel really lucky to work with such a great team. Everyone has their role and excels at what they do. Not just with the label, but also with the amazing partners we have in our publicist, Alexandra Baker at High Rise, as well as our great team on the agency side with Sara Bollwinkel and Tom Windish at Paradigm in the US and Mike Malak and Sol Parker at Coda in the UK.

What are your thoughts on the value of artists working with labels versus doing everything themselves?

BG: With the internet and social media, the tools are out there for an independent artists to promote their music and brand more than there ever was before. Also, there’s no one way to develop an artist, so there are so many unique ways an artist can build a base without a label. However, I think that Danny and I both feel that our team at Darkroom and Interscope have played a huge role in Billie’s success.

I do think that Billie would have had success regardless, as she’s an incredibly talented and unique one-of-a-kind artist. But it’s undeniable that we have seen so much value globally by having such a powerful system in place of people and partners that have worked tirelessly alongside us to make Billie arguably the most talked-about new artist.

DR: A lot of artists can achieve great success without labels, and then there are artists who also can benefit greatly from being on a label and a larger team around them to help build and scale their success.  

I love the DIY ethos and retaining the flexibility and control over the project internally, but if the artist and team are aligned, do their job efficiently, and trust the vision, you can have the best of all worlds and fully justify the label partnership.

What has it been like working with Interscope boss John Janick?

DR: John is one of the best. He has experience from building a small bedroom record label [Fueled By Ramen] and making serious impact, then working up the ranks within a major label system, then heading major label systems, and coming over to Interscope.

John understands that artist development is a puzzle that you need to put together over time, [and] how to develop an artist from a very small level to a much larger level. He understands how everything needs to be tied together to properly surround and showcase the music, and the [importance of taking] shots at certain things that may not necessarily pan out. He also brings in really amazing people to execute that vision. He’s been extremely supportive and easy to deal with at every stage.

“John understands that artist development is a puzzle that you need to put together over time.”

BG: It has been amazing to work with John. He understands the importance of building a culture around an artist, [and] that developing an artist the right way takes time and cannot be rushed. We really appreciate his support, guidance, and the resources he has provided for us and Billie to help build her base and see her creative vision through.

DR: John did it from day one [at FBR] with bands like Less Than Jake and Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco and Paramore. He’s taken artists that might be part of a subsect, genre-wise, and helped those artists grow into much larger [acts]. He recognizes and understands how you scale an artist and how you break them, whatever genre they might be in.

Likewise, you’ve worked closely with your other label partner at Darkroom. how has Darkroom impacted on Billie’s development as an artist?

DR: We are in a unique situation as we have a major label behind BIllie but it’s actually under a joint venture with Darkroom, run by an amazing up-and-coming executive in Justin Lubliner. He has been part of the team since day one when he signed Billie to the label, and instrumental to the the success of the project.

He is also very independent-spirited and fights for his artists. Justin understands the very careful, but impactful, artist development process like someone who’s been doing it for a lot longer than his age would suggest. He’s also built great relationships throughout the industry and has been able to champion Billie and help build awareness every step of the way.

BG: Justin is a machine. He is amazing at utilizing all of the resources around him to make the most out of every opportunity.

He’s creative and forward thinking in his approach to artist development and has done an incredible job at putting together meaningful campaigns and forming long-lasting partnerships with the various digital service providers so they can also take ownership and be part of the development story of an artist like Billie.

Billie Eilish is being called ‘the most talked-about teen on the planet’. There’s obviously a lot of pressure that comes with a tag like that – how do you manage the pressures on artists in the always-on social media age?

DR: The growth we’ve seen in getting to this point, with headlines like that, is definitely not what we [envisioned] to happen so quickly. We knew this was going to grow, but the speed of it has been pretty mind-blowing.

For someone like Billie, she takes it in stride. She’s generally figured out how to navigate it; there’s never going to be a perfect way of living a normal life at this level. It’s always a challenge to try to balance regular life with what’s going on around you – but she’s incredibly resilient and handles it very maturely. And for a 17-year-old, she’s incredible.

“It’s always a challenge to try to balance regular life with what’s going on around you – but she’s incredibly resilient and handles it very maturely”

We as management have tried to filter a lot of things, but she’s got an amazing family around her with her mom and her dad and her brother who all pull it together and have different roles in her life and on tour. They really help to also filter and keep things in perspective.

BG: Billie’s very fortunate because she has such an incredibly supportive family that is with her at all time experiencing this journey with her. Having a great support system in place is essential for any young artist.

If there’s one thing you could change about the music business, what would it be?

BG: I don’t know if there’s anything I would change, necessarily, but it’s great that there are new ways to release and promote music to allow artists to reach listeners. The ability to receive so much data in real-time helps us better understand the growth of a song or artist in real time. That’s really been beneficial in helping guide us in making better decisions in regards to our strategy for releasing new music, touring, and radio.

DR: The music business now is in one of the best states its ever been in. The market and the ability for people to consume music is at its greatest in a long time.

Somebody made a point four or five years ago that the streaming services would basically make music a utility [because streaming] gives you the ability to listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. I believe music, someone’s art, means a lot more to a lot of people than simplifying it that way, but I think [streaming has] really helped that connection grow as well.  And of course there still is the ability to own something, so physical records are still great as they are collector’s items; even for an artist like Billie who’s such a large streaming artist, her fans love the physical products as extensions of her culture and art.  

“There needs to be a better operation and calculation in which people feel like they’re being fairly compensated.”

The one thing that probably would be great to see as a continual change, is how songwriters, performers, and rights-owners are being taken care of with performance and songwriting royalties, or how they are being paid. There needs to be a better operation and calculation in which people feel like they’re being fairly compensated. It’s one of the more hot button issues in the industry right now and organizations like SoundExchange, the publishing companies, Performance Rights Organizations, broadcasters and streaming services are all working diligently on.  

That said, it’s a much more complicated and delicate process than looking at one headline or reading one article, or thinking it’s an easy thing to solve or that there is one side that is more justified. It’s going to take a lot of work and smart people on all sides to come to an agreement there.

There’s argument about the notion of the album being dead in the streaming age. Billie’s album has kind of proved that argument wrong, to a certain degree. What are your thoughts on that?

DR: Streaming is at an all-time high, and music consumption is hitting a critical mass, to some degree. While playlists drive single consumption, albums can be put together in a specific way where if you have the right artist and if it’s the right time, albums become a new ‘playlist’.

That’s something that Billie and Finneas were thinking about when they made this record. They were thinking, make a playlist of our songs that fit together. I think that as fans continue to discover artists, and artists do a good job of hooking them into their world, albums can be just as big as they once were.  

“While playlists drive single consumption, albums can be put together in a specific way where if you have the right artist and if it’s the right time, albums become a new ‘playlist’. That’s something that Billie and Finneas were thinking about when they made this record.”

Beyond the streaming and physical sales side, we are in such an amazing place with the radio story that we’ve built the last eight months or so, where we have multiple songs working well on multiple formats. That is really a testament to having the right music with the full support from fans, and be able to bring all of that to radio and work with the teams nationally and locally as mutually beneficial partners. SiriusXM, iHeart, Amp, etc have all done such a great job understanding the full artistic vision and helping to amplify that.

BG: I think people need to remember that Billie was releasing music for three and a half years before she released a full length album. We waited until the demand was there for an album to be consumed by her fans as we continued to build the story of her as an artist.

Equally as important is that her and Finneas focused on making a cohesive body of work, an album of songs that were meant to be consumed together.  They did not just want to release a bunch of songs that did not creatively fit together.

Does the concept of A bigger production next time round – in a bigger, multi-million dollar recording studio – appeal to Billie and Finneas at all?

BG: Billie and Finn have had plenty of opportunities to work in any studio [out there], but they prefer to work at home where they feel the most creative and comfortable. They have recorded and written almost everything in Finn’s bedroom studio. They don’t need or want to work in some big recording studio.

DR: The magic they have with their home and creative life is something really important to their process because it truly keeps them inspired. Billie has been able to walk five steps and record that one thing that was in her brain at [any given] time. That’s just the way their creative process works.

What are your hopes for the next year or next couple of years, or longer term?

DR: My hope is that Billie and Finn can stay just as inspired to make amazing music, which I think they are, and they can continue to not just evolve musically but engage and challenge what they do – and continuously challenge her audience and grow with her audience.

BG: We just want them to feel empowered to continue to create music and explore other opportunities if and when they see fit.  We want to be there to support whatever they want to do, and however they want to express themselves creatively and artistically.

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